Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane Talk Plans for 'Cosmos,' Flaws of 'Gravity'

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Headshot - H 2012

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Headshot - H 2012

If you have a beating heart, you’ll respond to Cosmos.

At least that’s what Carl Sagan’s widow and writer/producer Ann Druyan suggested as her space odyssey reboot readies for its 13-episode bow March 9 on Fox and cable sibling National Geographic Channel. Her team of fellow producers, including Seth MacFarlane and Star Trek's Brannon Braga, used the Television Critics Association platform Monday to stress that the Neil DeGrasse Tyson-hosted series about space and the nature of the universe would be as informative as it is entertaining, and will include heavy CGI and animation. 

The project’s path to Fox began with a lunch meeting between Degrasse Tyson and MacFarlane, who asked early in the meal what he could do to change science. “Is this Stewie?” the astrophysicist joked of his initial reaction to MacFarlane's comment, before recognizing just how passionate the Family Guy creator was about the field. When DeGrasse Tyson shared plans for a long-planned update to the 1980s program, MacFarlane recommended that they bring the effort not to expected outlets like Discovery or National Geographic Channel but rather to a broader platform like Fox. “In a way, you’re sort of preaching to the converted,” MacFarlane said of focusing only on the more educational-focused networks, before making the case for broadcast: “Wouldn’t it be nice to broaden it a bit?”

That Fox bit is as much a commentary on the weight MacFarlane carries at the network as it is on the program's possibility to have a cultural impact. (Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly has acknowledged that the ratings expectations aren't particularly high.) The decision to air it on Sunday evenings is designed, in part, to draw as many students as possible to the program, and the company plans to mount a sizable outreach campaign with high schools in the hopes of encouraging students to pursue careers in science. (When one reporter in the room noted that it would be "nerds" watching science programming, MacFarlane shouted "F--k You," with a laugh.)

As the spring premiere date approaches, DeGrasse Tyson suggested he is increasingly bullish about the series’ potential in part because he has witnessed first-hand society's interest in all things space. “I tweet the universe, and that’s attracted an interest that I didn’t know was there,” he says of his own growing social media following that is approaching 1.6 million. That fan base follows him off-screen, too, with DeGrasse Tyson noting that he's stopped on the street by fans with regularity. ("The big transition for me is that I have to leave a little more groomed," he joked.)

At one point during the half-hour panel, DeGrasse Tyson acknowledged that the power of his raised profile has periodically surprised him, most recently when his critical tweets about the science of Alfonso Cuaron’s red-hot Gravity landed on outlets such as the Today show and the NBC Evening News with Brian Williams. Though he enjoyed the film, he took to social media in early October with nearly 20 tweets about what he called the “mysteries of #Gravity.”

He stood by his critique Monday, noting that the Sandra Bullock vehicle “had earned the right to be criticized at this level," before adding: "I don't run around criticizing the bad physics in Star Wars. There are certain films that make no premise of being accurate, so that I don't even go there." While he added that he was thrilled to see a space movie encouraging the kind of conversation that this one had, he felt compelled to speak up about it's inaccuracies: “It's a good thing that people are arguing about the science of a movie that takes place in space... but if you want to go there [with science], you've got to be held to the same standards that any other storytelling elements would be held to when someone analyzes how good the movie is.”